Today's post is from Matt Renwick (@HowePrincipal), an elementary principal in Wisconsin, USA.
This question I pose is genuine. It is not rhetorical or just an attempt at an effective lead to draw in readers. In the midst of the Common Core, raised expectations and standardized assessments for five year olds, it is something worth pondering.
Besides being an elementary principal, I am also a parent of a kindergarten student. With that, this topic should be looked at from multiple perspectives within a school. (This is not necessarily my thinking, just what could reasonably be each position’s point of view.)
As a principal…I see the whole picture. I know students come in with various language abilities. Guided reading is an effective instructional strategy to accommodate every student’s needs.
As a parent…I want what’s best for my child. Is he/she getting what is needed to stay challenged? What should I be doing at home to support my child in reading?
As a kindergarten teacher…Each of my student’s skills and ability levels are so unique. And their specific needs within reading vary as well, like concept of print and phonemic awareness. With this many students, how can I use guided reading while keeping the rest of my class engaged in effective reading activities?
As an instructional coach or interventionist…Now that we are midway through the school year, how do we take the next step and differentiate for our students through practices such as guided reading? We have to meet a certain benchmark by the end of the year. I am not sure if we are going to make it.
The purpose of this post is only to explore this issue, maybe even start a conversation on the topic. To start, I need to digress and explore what guided reading is and isn’t. (This is probably more for me than anyone.)
Guided Reading Is Not Necessarily…
Small Group Instruction
Three or four students congregated around a teacher, sitting behind a bean-shaped table does not mean guided reading is occurring. Upon closer examination, it might be round robin reading (kids taking turns reading aloud a page). Unfortunately, the teacher is controlling the learning instead of the student.
Small Groups Always Reading the Same Book
I used this practice too often as an elementary teacher. Students worked with me based on their reading level. This is ability grouping, a practice that shouldn’t be used exclusively because the focus (in students’ minds, anyway) only seems to be on decoding. Students grouped in this way might also view themselves as either poor readers, or better readers than peers. Both mindsets are not healthy when developing life long learners.
Shared Read Aloud, Interactive Read Alouds
It is not guided reading when a teacher reads aloud the same text that every student has access to. Yes, the teacher is scaffolding for students by doing the decoding for them. But how does a teacher balance the need for student choice and engagement with structure and support?
What Guided Reading Is
Prepared, Thoughtful Instruction
Guided reading is defined as “the place where every child, every day, has the opportunity to learn by reading a book that is just right” (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996). It does involve small group instruction, but based on students’ needs, personal goals and interests. Only using a prescribed set of readers from a basal or anthology series does not take into account these elements, although it might make planning easier for the teacher. More time should be spent preparing for where both the teacher and student want to go, and selecting a just right text that will help get them there.
My teachers regularly enter independent reading levels for all of their students on a spreadsheet. Looking at most classrooms, I notice students at a wide range of levels rather than three to five convenient groupings. I would say this is most evident in primary level classrooms. This can make it difficult to facilitate guided reading in kindergarten as it is strictly prescribed. A few students at this age level require one-on-one support, others need an adult to touch base with them from time to time, while the rest of the class is somewhere in between.
Students need to be able to assess themselves as readers. One job of the teacher is to facilitate this process. Teacher talk that is observational and questioning can help students reflect on their efforts. Questions that focus on strengths as well as areas for improvement also blurs the lines between teacher and learner, as described by Peter Johnston in Knowing Literacy. “Children develop the criteria for evaluating their reading out of the conversations in which they are immersed” (Johnston, 1998). Anecdotal records and student portfolios can also provide more concrete evidence to measure growth in this process.
So, should kindergarten teachers use guided reading? Maybe a better question to ask is how we as teachers fulfill our role as a guide, which Merriam Webster defines as “one that leads or direct another’s way”.
Consider the following:
Do I know my students as readers? That is, am I aware of their interests, reading habits, background knowledge and aspirations?
Can I explain to a parent or colleague each of my student’s strengths and areas for growth?
When a student struggles to find his or her next book, am I able to pique their interest with other titles I think they will enjoy?
Do I regularly confer with my readers and keep anecdotal notes to plan for future instruction?
Are my students reading and writing at least 50% of the school day (Allington, 2007)?
When my students are reading independently, are they allowed to choose what they want to read?
Are the texts my students are reading at their level (Allington and Gabriel, 2012)?
Am I extending my students with text at their instructional level and guided support?
Are my students growing in both their ability to read and in their love for reading?
If our efforts result in students who develop a love for reading while making strong growth, then our guidance has been effective.
Allington, Richard E. (2002). “What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers.” Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10).